Battle Creek early childhood system builds resilience to weather child care crisis


In 2014, only 15.5% of children in Battle Creek were ready for kindergarten. But just a few years later, in 2022, the city’s kindergarten readiness rate had more than tripled to 51%. What happened?

In 2010, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation funded the Early Development Instrument (EDI) to gather and centralize data about five critical domains of young children’s lives in Battle Creek. To analyze and create a plan of action based on the vast amount of data, the community worked together to create Pulse, a project now with the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. 

Pulse would make sense of all the data and convene partners to build a strategy to operationalize solutions to the challenges the data revealed. The partners from the early care and education and family support systems came together to build wraparound supports for the city’s youngest learners and their families.

“We use data as an organization to try to understand where the need is,” explains Kathy Szenda Wilson, co-executive director and founder of Pulse. “When that need is identified, then we connect with community partners and say: ‘What are we going to do about it?’” 

Amidst all the data came a sobering finding: Battle Creek neighborhoods home to the poorest populations and the most residents of color lacked access to any quality early childhood education centers. This discovery gave the collaborative a specific goal to rally around: building up and supporting excellent early childhood education centers that would be accessible to the community and improve kindergarten readiness.

One shining example is Harvest Learning Center. In 2016, Pastor Ivan Lee of New Harvest Christian Center, together with his wife Tina Lee, opened a new preschool program. Harvest Learning Center has already earned the highest 5 Star rating from the Michigan Department of Education. Support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the state’s Great Start Readiness Program makes the program free for families – including four full days per week, transportation, and additional childcare services for families who need it. In a country where child care can cost more than a parent’s salary, this combination of quality and affordability creates an island of stability for families.

Many local organizations are working alongside Harvest Learning Center to provide early learning resources to families in Battle Creek. “All these programs continue to add value to kids’ growth,” says Dr. Jianping Shen, a professor at Western Michigan University and the collaborative’s data partner who tracked the improvements in kindergarten readiness. 

Each organization plays a vital role in creating the web of community support that young children need to learn and thrive. “Our goal is to reach the unreachable,” Pastor Lee said. “Regardless of their economic status, parents want to make sure their children are loved and educated every day.”


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